Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe answers a question from State Board of Education member William Mathis during a past meeting. File photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger
More Act 46 merger proposals gained State Board of Education approval Tuesday and will go before voters on Town Meeting Day. One of the plans would unite 10 northern school districts into one massive school choice district.A total of nine unifications will be considered by voters in their respective communities in March.
Study committees presented school district merger proposals involving Rutland Central and Rutland Southwest supervisory unions; Addison-Rutland; and Caledonia North, Essex Caledonia and Essex North. A previously approved plan to merge Windham Central school districts into the West River Education District returned to the board with a change to the articles of agreement, which the board approved.
RUTLAND CENTRAL AND RUTLAND SOUTHWEST
An Act 46 study group within Rutland Central and Rutland Southwest has proposed a side-by-side merger with two alternative districts carved out for Rutland Town and Ira.
The board did not approve the alternative structures but did give the green light for the side-by-side merger.
One side would unify three districts that operate all grades: Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland. This would become the Quarry Valley Unified Union School District and would serve 988 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
The parallel merger would combine the two pre-K-6 school districts — Middletown Springs and Wells, with 273 students — into the Wells Springs Unified Union School District. It would tuition students in grades seven through 12.
Andy Shaw, chair of the study committee, told state board members that the new configuration would create “greater stability in our tax rates” and allow for pooling resources and functioning more efficiently.
In an effort not to isolate the Ira School District (which tuitions students in kindergarten through 12th grade) and the Rutland Town School District (which operates pre-K through eighth grade, then tuitions), the proposal includes these school districts’ self-evaluations and made an effort to present them as alternative structures.
The state board members chose not to consider alternative structures, saying it is too early in the process.
Board member Krista Huling thought the two school districts should spend more time exploring options. “It is a little premature to take them off the table and say, ‘You are your own alternative district.’”
Board members felt new options might appear as mergers continue to unfold.
Towns from Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union returned to the state board Tuesday after their previously approved plan to merge into the Slate Valley Unified Union School District was voted down twice by residents of Orwell.
After the unsuccessful votes a new study committee formed. The new effort includes more analysis and a different school board configuration. Also, all towns had to vote positively for it to work last time but not anymore. If at least four towns want to merge, then the proposal shifts to a modified unified union school district, also known as a MUUD.
Ronald Ryan, superintendent of Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union. Courtesy photo
Ron Ryan, superintendent of Addison-Rutland, said small-schools grants are at stake in Benson and Orwell and that hold-harmless provisions are important to schools across the supervisory union. Under Act 46, both small-schools grants and hold-harmless provisions — which allow for schools to adjust enrollments as fewer students attend, so that their tax rates aren’t affected as significantly — are stripped of school districts that do not merge.
In the last iteration, the school board membership was based on proportionality. This time around, the study committee chose to give towns three members each.
Donna Russo-Savage, an Education Agency employee who works with study groups to help them comply with Act 46, said that as long as the entire new district votes for the school board members then it is considered proper and proportional. “They vote at the entire district level, so even though they live in Benson they represent everyone in the district.”
The proposal would bring together the six towns of Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, Orwell and West Haven and eight school boards and eight budgets into one pre-K-12 school district serving 1,376 students. One supervisory union is to be responsible for operating all the elementary, middle and high schools with an 18-member school board.
Ryan said the merger would “provide the tools to the board so they can better align shared resources, and provide some protections to small districts in our SU that currently are unable to control costs or shield themselves from” tax increases.
State board Chairman Stephan Morse asked if the proposal would leave Orwell isolated if residents vote against it again.
In April, Orwell defeated the merger by a vote of 211 to 121, and in June residents rejected it again, 204 to 166.
Glen Cousineau, who is from Orwell and chairs the study group, said that if Orwell balks again he would expect a modified unified union school district to be formed and Orwell would be an outlier for a bit. Cousineau also expected the state board would include Orwell with the MUUD when it creates a statewide plan in 2019.
“I personally think that would be the right choice. The people who are vehemently opposed to this feel that if it keeps getting voted down the state won’t have any teeth and they will just leave us alone to remain as we are and not have to do anything,” said Cousineau.
If the vote fails in some towns but is successful in at least four then a modified unified union school district will be formed.
The study group found there would be around $300,000 in one-time savings from sharing maintenance, teaching positions and reducing the number of audits needed.
NEK CHOICE SCHOOL DISTRICT
The NEK Choice School District would merge 10 districts that pay tuition for pre-K-through-12 students to attend a public or private school of their choice. Right now, students in the area attend 20 different schools in Vermont and other states. A new single school board with 11 members would monitor performance of students and work with receiving schools and parents to improve it when needed.
Study committee members see this as a way to keep and affirm school choice. “The ability of parents in these communities to choose the school that best meets their child’s educational needs will be affirmed,” they state in their report under the heading “opportunities.”
The study committee anticipates close to $100,000 in savings and less volatility in tax rates.
“These towns have small student populations, and when two or three kids move to town it can dramatically change their tax rate. By combining they can take advantage of tax incentives and protections in having one superintendency and eliminating two supervisory unions,” said Martha Heath, the consultant to the study committee.
Bloomfield, Brunswick, East Haven, Granby, Guildhall, Kirby, Lemington, Maidstone, Norton and Victory school districts will merge if voters approve the plan March 7. This group also has a backup plan to form the NEK Choice School District if voters in at least four school districts approve and others vote against it.
LELAND AND GRAY TOWNS
The state board heard again from the study committee representing towns whose children attend middle and high school at Leland & Gray in Townshend. Their proposal for a unified union or a modified unified union gained state board approval at the December meeting, but since then they uncovered an unexpected consequence of their school board makeup in the articles of agreement.
As written, the at-large board members who would be elected to the initial board could reside in one of only two school districts rather than in any of the five possibly merging districts. The study committee got state board approval Tuesday to amend this to allow for the at-large members to come from any of the school districts that would form the new unified district.